Buckley argues that Obi occupied a small and unexceptional part of New York City's theatrical scene until its strange appropriation by the first African-American theatrical troupe. The reworking of the Obi material is not only placed in the context of the city's race relations but also within the increasing transatlantic demand for novelty entertainments.
John Fawcett's Obi; or, Three-Finger'd Jack in its various versions offers one way to gauge the response of English audiences to slavery and to those it oppressed. More particularly, Obi can reveal how difficult it was to find an appropriate form for bodying forth upon stage the horrors of slavery, as the genres and the institutional structure of the British theater worked to control a potentially radical message. The story of Jack Mansong, a slave in revolt, had the potential to bring a radically anti-slavery message to the stage. While the play's initial staging as a melodrama certainly did not embrace Mansong's revolt, various features of the pantomime did serve to give Mansong and the Afro-Caribbean culture he represented power on stage. Rewritten as a melodrama with spoken dialogue, the play might seem to have lost some its radical potential, but the great actor Ira Aldridge, through what Henry Louis Gates calls "signifyin[g]," managed to create in Jack one of the key theatrical images of a man of African descent.
This essay both summarizes and explains two re-stagings with papers of the play Obi; or Three-Fingered Jack (first staged in London in 1800) as these were presented in the year 2000 in two different parts of the United States. One one level, this piece compares the two productions in detail, the one presented in Boston to a community audience and the one presented for academics at the 2000 Conference of the North American Society for the Study of Romanticism (NASSR). In this process, it tries to account for the rationales of two different directors behind their choices of scenes, perfomance styles, actors, singers, and stagings. It also confronts the difficulties of staging a once-racist musical play—one that changed over time from 1800 into the 1820s—for widely different audiences in America at the most recent turn of the century. It is hoped that this theatrical extension of the larger project of recovering Obi reveals the complex tensions still attached to racism and memories of slavery while it also reconstructs the conditions of theater and imperialism in England at the beginning of the nineteenth century.
Samuel Arnold's musical score for the original pantomime version of Obi generates a tension between the pastoral world of the plantation ostensibly dedicated to Christian morality and the exotic world of slave insurrection associated with Obeah. It emerges to map the ambiguous and hybrid status inherent in cross-cultural encounters during the pre-emancipation era. If Arnold associates Obeah with the wilderness outside the plantation eden, then there are moments which suggest a different kind of discourse. Some music for slaves creates enough space to absorb the idea of grief and in the famous cave scene, Rosa sings the pantomime's "hit" song as an expression of transracial desire. Arnold's borrowings from his Viennese contemporaries Haydn and Mozart is of special interst; the famous movement from Haydn's "Surprise" symphony, for example, is used to accompany a night raid. In the case of Mozart's K575, the music had probably not been previously heard in London.
The paper explores the complex ways in which Ira Aldridge, in the role of Jack, brought together the rich cultural symbols of slaves, tigers, sugar and blood. It begins by tracing the play to its source in Benjamin Moseley's Treatise on Sugar. Against Mosely's treatise, where sugar is seen as a cure to the diseases of Western culture, the paper uncovers the debates on slavery where the slave trade, not sugar, is called a disease. Further, by examining the rituals of "obi," especially death and reanimation, the paper investigates how obi actually mocks the experience of slavery. Since the centerpiece of the practice was the charm, or obi bag, the paper pays particular attention to the bag's contents, which had the ability to evoke both the brokenness and the power of the rebel slave experience. The paper claims that Aldridge, by acting in the play, performed the rituals of obi-death and reanimation, brokenness and power, and made obi a cure to the disease of slavery.
The pantomime and melodrama versions of Obi, or Three-finger'd Jack played an important role in abolition debates and in the career of Ira Aldridge, the first African-American actor of international stature. This Praxis volume includes essays by preeminent scholars of English Romanticism, theater, and music history on the evolution, performance history, and social and cultural impact of the Obi plays, as well as illustrations and modern video reproductions of scenes from both the pantomime and melodrama versions. This volume also contains the complete text of the melodrama version of Obi.